Watch Your Language!

by Alma A. Hromic

March 11, 2002

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An apocryphal tale tells of a German scholar who spent many years diligently studying the English language. He wrestled with such anomalies as Leicester and Cholmondeley, and conquered them. At last, he felt confident enough to leave his native land and visit England.

One of the first things he saw when he got to London was a large advertising billboard above a theatre showing the musical "Cinderella." In large, lurid letters, the board crowed: CINDERELLA PRONOUNCED SUCCESS.

The German student, so the story goes, went home and shot himself.

And you can't blame him for despairing, really. The English language is a torture tool designed to trap the unwary in unexpected quicksand. It is no accident that English is so given to puns and wordplay -- no other language on the linguistic map has quite the attitude that rules are simply there to illustrate exceptions. Anything goes.

English gives no quarter, and takes no prisoners. Perfectly obvious words lie in ambush and unmask the most polished foreign speaker as a non-native as soon as they are attempted. One of my own early stumbling blocks, drilled out of me by the mocking laughter of my peers in junior school playgrounds where I started learning the mysteries of the English tongue, was "awry." I pronounced it 'AW-ree' -- well, it LOOKED like it should be pronounced that way! -- and got teased mercilessly by tormenting children until I learned that the correct pronunciation is actually 'aw-RYE'. How is a poor foreigner supposed to know?

English is full of these traps. So much so that an entire class of literature has emerged, painting a picture of a language from Hell which has a grammar designed by the Language Inquisition and is probably second only to Cantonese.

Dutchman Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946) wrote a regular linguistic column for an Amsterdam weekly paper, under the pseudonym Charivarius, from 1909 until his death in 1946. The first known version of Dr Trenité's paean to the idiosyncrasies of the English language, "The Chaos," appeared as an appendix to his textbook. 'Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen' (Haarlem: H D Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1920). The last version of the poem to appear in the author's lifetime, in 1944, was in the seventh edition of this book, by which time it had nearly doubled from its original length. It has continued to grow, as other writers and editors keep finding more idiosyncrasies to add. With the advent of the Internet, the poem, now unrecognisable from its humble beginnings, can be read on numerous websites, and has found its way into millions of email in-boxes as enthralled new converts pass it on to friends. It's probably been around the world ten times (and is still going!). Non-native speakers groan aloud when they see this tongue twister. In one of its latest "incarnations," it was supposedly reborn (as an original, no less!) at the NATO headquarters near Paris where the verse was "devised" to help the multi-national personnel discard a variety of confusing accents. An email going around describing this event quotes a French staffer as saying that he'd prefer six months at hard labor to reading six lines aloud. Here's a taste of it:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.

To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

Discount, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,
Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation's OK.
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

With the advent of the computer, and its word-processing software and spellcheckers, the joy of English (mis)use has multiplied a thousandfold - because of the many phonemes in the language which make it impossible for the spellchecker to pick up perfectly good English words which may have been inadvertently substituted for what the author intended. A gentleman by the name of Jerrold H. Zar has penned a poem entitled "Candidate for a Pullet Surprise." Much like "Chaos," this poem, too, has found its way around the Internet, often losing its attribution; it is often found under the title "Ode to a Spelling Checker" (or, worse, "Owed to a Spieling Chequer"). Here's a snatch of that gem:

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it's weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

My grandfather, a poet and writer in his own right, never tangled with English until I, the only inheritor of the writer "gene" started writing... in that language, and not my own mother tongue. Grandfather was deeply frustrated at his inability to understand my work, and had to be placated for years by a steady stream of translations which were provided tirelessly by my father. During all this time the question of English as a language never really came up, but during one extended visit we started discussing the subject of language with Grandpa. He could not get his mind around the concept of spelling, since his own language is wholly and logically phonetic (so there are no quicksands like in English). In all of his life, for as long as I have known him, I have heard my grandfather swear in front of me only once -- when I tried to explain to him that the word spelled "Worcester" was actually pronounced "wooster" and "Leicester" as "lesster." He stalked off with an explosive and very blue oath. To the day he died he could not understand why I had picked English as the language in which I chose to write.

But English, however frustrating and aggravating it can be, has the potential to being so much fun. Puns and wordplay are so much harder in a pure phonetic language. In my own native tongue, having the word "ghoti" spell "fish" (if you didn't know that one, it's "gh" as in "couGH," "o" as in "wOmen," and "ti" as in "consternaTIon," which is usually what greets this explanation...) would be an impossibility. And yet there are always the strait-laced in any community, with an entire website devoted to an impassioned denial that "ghoti" can spell fish, and giving the reasons why, completely missing the point of the whole game. "You could spell fish 'phoche' (PHoto wOmen quiCHE), but why would you want to?" the pedantic grammarian concludes.

Think of the simple preposition, and of how it can change the entire sense of a word. Going up, going out, going through, going over, going in, going under -- every phrase has a different and distinct meaning. Likewise: sit up, sit down, sit in; look out, look into, look over; speak up, speak out; shut up, shut in, shut out.

Only in a language like English can the words "hot" and "cool" both mean that something is wonderful. This is the language which permitted me, a self-confessed punaholic, to utter one of the most appalling puns of my career -- at a raucous and populous dinner party at the occasion of a friend of mine leaving New Zealand to move to a new job and new life in London, UK, the conversation turned to archaeology. People spoke of the discovery of the city of Troy, where Helen once dwelled. The problem was that, at the Troy dig, there was one city of Troy, and below that there were traces of another city that used to be on the same site, and below that yet another... which was the real Troy, Helen's Troy? Another soi-disant archaeologist insisted that he had in fact found the REAL city of Troy... but his claim was complicated by the fact that his site was located in present-day Luxembourg. "Ah well," I said, unable to resist, "if at first you don't succeed... Troy and Troy again."

Six people threw their napkins at me at once.

Given the idiomatic nature of English, endless fun can be had at websites like Babel Fish, playing a sort of cyber-version of Chinese Telephones. Translating a famous phrase or sentence into a language other than English, and then having Babel Fish re-translate this translated language back into English, is hilarious. Translating the opening line of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" from English to Portuguese and back again returns this gem: "It a well known fact that a new man in possession of a richness must be in the fetching for a wife." The old adage "The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak," passed through the Babel Fish scrambler through Spanish, comes out as "The alcohol was arranged but the meat was weak." The unconfirmed but celebrated Russian version of this Babelspeak went something like this: "The vodka was good, but the meat was rotten."

Punctuation, or the lack of it, can play havoc with the English language. Getting things out of context can also be rewarding. I cannot seem to rid myself of two real World War II newspaper headlines, both of which made perfect sense at the time, both of which are showstopper howlers today: MCARTHUR FLIES BACK TO FRONT and EIGHTH ARMY PUSH BOTTLES UP GERMANS.

Then there are all those badly translated signs which have been circulating for years -- like the hotel lift notice announcing that the elevator would be undergoing service and apologising to visitors that, during this time, "...they would be unbearable." Or the dry-cleaning establishment which invited gentlemen to "drop their trousers here for best results." Or the dressmaker where "ladies may have fits upstairs." And we won't even talk of the regional English dichotomies of the kind that had a bunch of pretty American co-eds giggling wildly at the signs in a London Underground station in England which said "Way Out."

Signs are fun, in general. I have a small collection of incredible signs which are definite double-takes -- like the warning sign hammered into the greensward of Greenwich Village in England, right in front of a bucolic and very tame looking copse of young saplings, which says peremptorily "WARNING: DANGEROUS TREES" (more bark than bite, perhaps...). Or the sign hung on the chimney above a restaurant fireplace, which said... "NO SMOKING."

English, as she is spoke. Endless fun and endless frustration. My American-born husband, tripping every now and then on some idiosyncratic tenet of his own mother tongue, grumbles that he is glad that it is I and not himself who had to learn English as a second language. As for myself... I read Galsworthy and Austen and Evely Waugh, and then I read Jerome K. Jerome and Spider Robinson, and I glory in the language which I have had the privilege of being a part of.



full version of "The Chaos"

full version of "The Pullet Surprise"

"GHOTI does not spell fish!"

Babel Fish translation site



       Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Last January, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.

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Published March 11, 2002
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